Return to Volozhin Stories Menu

A bundle of memories - prior to the first world war in Volozhyn

Written by Osher Malkin in Yiddish,

Published 1970, in the Volozhyn congregation book

Add transalated from Yidish by Moshe Porat Perlman.


Volozhyn Topography

A rectangular market place was at the town center. Only it's northern

section, by the shops side, was paved. The town extended from west to east

along the Vilna - Minsk way.

Vilna Street originated at the Town west Entrance Tower (STOLB). The street

ended at the West Side of the Market Square. From the market's East Side,

Minsk Street sprawl out, it crossed the wooden bridge on the Volozhynka river

shallow stream and than climbed to the hills out of town.

In Vilna Street among mostly Jewish owned wooden houses, stood the

Pravoslavnaya Russian TSERKOV (church) and our family dwelling, both of them

built from tree trunks. They were located near a picturesque water pond. The

Market Square was dominated by the enormous imposing Polish KOSTIEL.

On both sides of the Market, where peasants from the surrounding Volozhyn

villages used to sell their farm products, shops were established, most of

them were Jewish owned. AROPTSU, on the so-called "Yiddish slope" next to the

Volozhynka stream, dwellings, stores and small workshops were located.

On the southern side of the Market and Aroptsu, spread out the elegant Estate

of Graph Tishkevitch, the landlord of the town and the surrounding areas.

A hundred meters north of the market was the location of the famous Yeshive,

Volozhyn's prize and glory.

Volozhyn Economics - PARNOSSES

The Volozhyn Jews mostly earned their living by trading with the Belorussians

peasants, who populated the surrounding villages and worked their land or

Graph Tyshkevitch's land. The soil around the forests was poor, so they

cultivated mainly potatoes and corn, but not wheat. The peasants were dirt

poor and they did not have much money to spend in Volozhyn.

However time came at the end of the nineteen's century when Mister Heller,

the notable wood merchant from Berlin, bought a great part of Graph

Tyshkevitch's forest, employment became widely available and some prosperity

become visible in the area.

My father, Hirsh Malkin, Heller's Wood Works general manager, established in

Belokorets (a village 3 Kilometers from Volozhin) the enterprise's main

office, the CONTOR. The peasants in the area now reached new vitality, they

received credit to buy horses and tools. The GOYIM earned much more money

working in the woods. A more decent life style became feasible for most in

the Shtetl.

Many citizens became Contor executive employees. Merchants used to buy and

then resell hemp (konopla) cultivated by the peasants. In Volozhyn there were

established workshops (TREPALNIA) to flutter, clean, sort and pack flax. Some

of the flax merchants became wealthy. One of them was Aba Levin. His house

and trepalnia were near the Yeshive.

The flax warehouse was equipped with iron shutters for fire protection.

Beside the warehouse stood a press. Through the Yeshive windows we could see

the flax being packed for transport. Aba Levin sent his children to high

school in a big town.  His store was in Perelman's stone house on the market.

The store clients were the Graph's executives and small landlords living in

the vicinity.

Graph Tyshkevitch's lands were another source for the area inhabitants to

earn money. The graph owned the land of Volozhyn, the Andopolie and Kapustina

farms and the extensive, widespread forest areas. The Graph's office was in

the Estate on the town southeast side. Within it stood elegant brick and

stone structures, his and his family palace residence as well as his staff

habitation buildings. The Estate was planted with numerous kinds of trees,

flowers, greenhouses and vast fruit orchards. The Volozhyn Jews used to buy

the fruits right of the trees.

Two Bunimovitz brothers lived In Volozhyn. One of them rented the

Sakovshchina mill. He was a rich man. In 1905 his house was robbed at

midnight by a gang of Jewish anarchist's who expropriated all valuable

objects for their foundation to fight the czarist regime.

The second brother rented the Andopolie farm, 10-Km from town. Our family was

in friendly relations with the second Bunimovitz brother. We used to visit

Andopolie on our horses. The farm seemed to me a paradise. A big squire's

POMIESHCHIK house, a huge green grass court, a corn barn, a working and

riding horses stable and a large cows and calves shed. They cultivated

industrial potatoes, which were delivered to an alcohol plant.  The butchers

on their way to the Polochany rail station stopped before the plant to let

the cattle enjoy the offal so to fatten it before butchering it for meat.

Another source for Volozhyn financial affairs was the YESHIVE, in which d

hundreds of young men studied. Almost all of them came from other cities and

little towns- SHTETL. Their parents supported most of them, and Volozhyn drew

the benefits. In addition messengers SHELIHIM collected much money from many

Yeshiva supporters.

The towns' inhabitants economical basis was the commerce. Many stores were

placed along the streets and around the Market Square. Some inhabitants

earned livelihood as craftsmen. There were KARABELNIKS, they used to go to

the villages selling merchandise to peasants and buying from them calves,

corn and flax to resell in town.

Excluding the water driven mill and soda water production there was not much

industry. So it is easy to understand the SHTETL's curiosity and

astonishment, when Michael Polak brought a steam engine and boiler for his

mill, situated on the left Volozhynka shore.

It happened on a summer evening, when many horses harnessed to a large

platform on big strong wooden wheels carried the steam machine from the rail

station through Vilna Street, over the Volozhynka wooden bridge to Michael

Polak's mill. Many children followed the engine. The entire population was

deeply impressed by the technical wonder.

A generator, installed in Polak's enterprise generated electricity. It was

the source of the first electrical light in Volozhyn. Each Friday before the

candle benediction a whistle of the steam engine announced the holy Sabbath



Post and telephone in Volozhyn.

In Volozhyn there was a post office but no telephone. The post office was

placed in "Aroptsu", on the right side of the Minsk Street just behind the

Volozhynka. Every day at ten o'clock a horse driven cart arrived bringing the

mail from Vishnievo. On Fridays it used to be escorted by an armed policeman,

because it carried valuable, registered mail and money.

The postman who served the Jewish population "Oyzer der raznoshchik" was,

during the whole year apart from Simhas Toyra a quiet, humble, dark-yellowish

bearded man, usually he was a reserved man but yet he was an ardent Hossid.

By the way, it is a place to note that the vast majority of Volozhyn Jews

were Misnagdim, Hassidim could be counted on the fingers of one hand. The

other Hassidim, apart from Oyzer, were Kushke der Baker, Shloyme der Hossid

(Shepsenwol) and perhaps two or three more. Nevertheless, they had enough

Energy, passion and yearning to show us during Simhas Toyra festivities the

difference between Hassidim and Misnagdim.  

Many inhabitants, particularly the young ones, got together on Saturdays near

the post office, hoping to receive some mail. Very few people actually

received letters. The majority found in the post courts an opportunity to be

together, to meet amongst friends, to have a little chat, to tell a Volozhyn

story, to hear some gossip and some recent news.

The first telephone in the area was installed in my parents' home, at Vilna

Street, near the water pond- sazhelke. Tyshkevitch's estate offices were

connected with their woodland horse riding guardians -  "Obyezchiki" by a

telephone cable. My father took advantage of that cable to install a

telephone connection between his home in town and his forest office -

"Contor", in Belokorets.  So the first Volozhyn telephone was born.


Volozhyn barbers

Two barbers worked in Volozhyn. The first and the most important one was

Meyshke der Sherer. Among his clients were the rich and prominent citizens,

the Graph's executives, officers and people alike.

Meyshke had his workshop in Perelman's big stone building, which stood on the

north side of the Market Square. Shops occupied the first floor, one of them

was Meyshke's "saloon".

The second barber, Alterke, a small dark Jew worked in another small house on

the narrow lane leading from the Perelman's house to the Beys Medrash. To get

to Meyshke one had to mount some stairs, to Alterke he descended some steps

down, because his flat was in half a cellar with tiny windows and from above

one could see what's going on inside.

Alterke did not have a special saloon. In one room stood a chair, on the wall

a mirror and beside it a small table with barber's tools. His clients were

the poor and less important persons, craftsmen, workers and youngsters. I

preferred to cut my hair in Alterke's shop. One was at home there and could

fool around, mostly when Alterke suddenly left his client in mid of the hair

cutting or shaving and went into the second room to calm one of his crying

babies. And there were many criers, each year he had a newborn.

Alterke had a goat. Between Alterke's flat and The Beys Medrash was an empty

area, where Alterke used to leave his goat to pasture. Untamed boys we were,

we would grasp the animal, bring it near the Beys Medrash entrance, open the

door and let the bearded goat walk among the praying Jews wrapped in shawls.

We would look for a while to see the confusion, then we would close the door

and run away satisfied that we succeeded with our entertaining prank.


In Volozhyn during the period before the First World War, neither organized

congregation nor affiliated institutions like a hospital, a bank, or savings

and loan existed. There was only a public hostel HEKDESH, where wandering

poor Jews found a shelter. Some people used to loan money to others with a

little interest. However, some richer families were engaged in charity. It

was usually done out of sheer goodness, concurrently they were earning a


My mother kept a special fund of few hundred rubles, for this purpose. Before

a bazaar or a big market day occurred, our home would be visited by multiple

small merchants. Mother loaned everyone 30 - 50 rubles to buy goods. The

loans were repaid after reselling the goods with no interest. The shopkeepers

did not go themselves to buy the goods. There were Jews that owned horses and

carts. After Sabbath they harnessed their "transportation facilitators" and

left for Minsk or Smorgon to buy the merchandise and later distributed it in

the Volozhyn shops.

Shuker's "private" Zionist organization

I remember times when there was no Zionist organization in Volozhyn. There

was a shopkeeper named Shuker. In his shop on the market one could buy all

kind of goods, from small to large: clothes, kitchenware, toys and also

gramophones with records.

On bazaar days Shuker used to put a record player on the entrance steps of

his shop and turned the handle. The magic box wonderful music became the best

publicity stunt and attention attraction during those days. Shuker was also

the single photographer in town.

One of his sons (now in America) started the Zionist activity in Volozhyn. He

wrote well and he was connected with Zionists from Vilna. He possessed Keren

Kayemet stamps, pictures from Erets Israel and sold them among his comrades.

For one of the Zionist Congresses he received Shekels. I bought one shekel

despite my lack of understanding of the Zionist Congress elections procedure.

Revolutionary  circles  in Volozhyn

During 1905, the year of the first Russian revolution, revolutionary parties

developed in Volozhyn like in many Jewish shtetleh. Among them were the

"Bund", SS and Anarchists. I remember Leizer dem Bekers daughters and other

guys and girls being members in an organization named "Siostry I Brat'ya" -

"Sisters and Brothers", in which both Jews and Gentiles were members.

A joke was told about Motke dem Shousters, who for a cup of cacao transferred

from the "bund" to the "SS" party.



Melamdim, learning institutions and theater

The HEIDERS, which functioned from dawn to dusk in Volozhyn, were of a

variety of levels, depending on the melamed's proficiency, on the number of

pupils per class and on the Heider's location.

My first Rabbi was Nahum der Melamed, quiet and easy- going, yellow bearded

Jew. He used to speak slowly in a hushed voice. But he often used his belt

over his pupil's buttocks. He did it without any signs of anger, as though he

was washing his hands before a meal.

At first, while attending the HEYDER my mother used to come there to take me

back to our home. Once she complained before reb Nahum about my naughtiness.

He looked at me with his cold eyes and said in a florid style: "If your son

is wicked we will be obliged to make a blessing over his CHALAS", he had in

mind beating my naked buttocks. My mother did not understand the Rebe's

meaning and answered that on each Sabbath Eve she bakes two tiny challas for

my blessing. The children broke out laughing, they were teasing me for days

later with "challas blessing''.

From Reb Nahum, the "babies" melamed, I passed to Reb Gorelik , and after his

emigration to America, I was transferred to Mr. Shwartsberg's heyder . Both

of them were higher-level. Melamdim. The Heyder contained eight to ten

disciples.  The Heyder and the teacher's apartment were in Perelman's big


Apart from the little Heyders There was in Volozhyn a Jewish primary school.

The school was Founded by "the Jewish Society for Education of Jewish

children."  The Society was established during the Enlightenment Period -

HASKALA. The headquarters were located in St Petersburg and the studies were

free. The curriculum included Russian language, Arithmetics, singing and hand

crafts for girls. The majority of the pupils were girls. The building was

placed opposite the Sazhelke. The manager and his family lived in the school


The manager, director Freedman, was a graduate of a teacher's seminary. The

Society sent him especially to Volozhyn to manage the school. The language he

spoke with his wife was Russian. Freedman was a strange person. Medium

height, dark skin with marks of black hair. I say marks, because Freedman

shaved not only his beard but also his whole head, during both summer and

winter. He was a typical "misanthrope". He had no friends. He never invited

anyone over. He always walked alone, without his wife or any other

acquaintances. He was teaching the higher grade children (there were two

classes only).

He was teaching singing. He accompanied his singing with a six-flanked small

harmonica. His playing was very tender. From time to time we used to stand

under the school windows to hear and to enjoy the wonderful melodies.

His wife, on the other hand, knew all the shtetl stories. She had many Jewish

and Gentile acquaintances. Freedman's wife came to our house often.

Blustering into the house like a wind, she told all the stories she knew.

Mother would serve her a glass of tea. She would drink the tea and run to

spread her gossips in a neighbor's house.

Boys who learned in Heyder and wanted to have a general education too, would

take lessons with private teachers. All the teachers who prepared me to the

secondary school were strangers in Volozhyn. They were wanderers who were

skilled in teaching Arithmetic and Russian language. They arrived in a

shtetl, earned some money and moved on to another area. There usually was

only a single teacher in town during any given period, because of the small

number of children who could afford private lessons.

Apart of Ore Polak's daughters who studied in St Petersburg and who never

returned to the shtetl, there were no Jewish University students in Volozhyn.

Some of the Graph's Polish functionaries and the Polish pharmacist sent their

children to study in Moscow. At the summer vacations they came home. They

enacted shows inside a large attic at the Estate. Many Jews frequented those

cultural events and enjoyed the playing. They did it in Russian. The last

show I saw was Anton Chekhov's "Bear".

There was a Yiddish dramatic circle. One of it's top artists was the

blacksmith's son, a beautiful boy with a pleasant voice. His best role was in

"Yoseph's Sale". The Yiddish language show was played in the Firemen's

barrack beside the Sazhelke.

Important cantors -hazonim and poets have sometimes visited Volozhyn's Beys

Medrash. Our town cantor criticized them severely, but we youngsters enjoyed

them a lot.

Reb Refoel der Goen ( Rabbi Rafael  the genius)

When one talks about education by a town synagogue personality, he should

have in mind the most important pedagogue in that period, the genius Reb

Refoel Shapiro, who was the Volozhyn Yeshiva head at the beginning of this

century. He was a wonderful man.

During my long life I had the opportunity to meet several Rabonim but no one

could be compared to our Reb Refoel. I can still recall him standing at

"Smoyneesrey", the eighteen benedictions prayer. I can still hear his

beautiful praying, remember his face, his figure, his whole demeanor.

As all the great Volozhyn Rabonim were, so Reb Refoel was called by his first

name only. The second name of our master was not known to most of the

community members. Yet it was enough to mention "Reb Refoel" and all of us,

young and old, men and women, boys and girls, knew that it referred to "Him",

our Row, our Genius, to the first among firsts.

Reb Refoel was a tall, slightly bent man.  His virtuous eyes radiated

kindness. You could see in them the long day and night hours-spent on reading

and studying the holy books.

My father had his place in the same Beys Medrash where Reb Refoel prayed. As

a small boy I often used to leave my father, to stay in the rabbi's vicinity

to listen and enjoy his devoted prayer. He pronounced each sentence slowly,

clearly and with sincere intention.

Volozhyn Jews, who usually thought themselves eminent and very important,

referred to him with enormous dignity. When Reb Refoel entered the synagogue,

a deep silence prevailed in the Beys Medrash building. You would be able to

hear a  fly passing. All present looked at him with great respect. It seemed

to me that in such a manner was welcomed the Kohen Gadol in the Jerusalem


My father used to go to Reb Refoel Shapira's house at Shavuot, to hear the

Rabbi's Droshe - Preaching. Present were those who knew perfectly the Torah,

skilled in Talmud and the town more important citizens. I remember my father

explaining to mother the topic of Reb Refoel's lecture and it's deep


When you looked at Reb Refoel it seemed that you are not facing a man from

this world, but a man who was truly created in God's Image.

Reb Refoel was the Sandak - Godfather  - in my brother Isak's "brit".

Everyone who saw Reb Refoel remained enchanted by his personality for the

rest of his life.

The Perelman Family.     *Les parents de Yosef Perelman, pere de Sonia et


The Perelman family belonged to the Intelligentsia circle in Volozhyn. Moyshe

Perelman's father was the Vishnievo Rabbi (Vishnievo - a small shtetl near

Volozhyn, in which Shimon Peres was born).

Moyshe married Malka Itshakin who drew her Ihuss (pedigree) from Rabbi Hayim

der Volozhyner, who established the great Volozhyn Yeshiva and was it's first

Yeshiva head. Malka was a beautiful, delicate and civilized woman, a lady.

Moyshe Perelman's father left Vishnievo before the First World War and

immigrated to Erets Israel, He changed his name to Margolis (which means

Pearl in Hebrew) and became a Rabbi in Rehovot.

All Perelman's were talented, educated people. The two sisters never

separated from their Russian books, a rare phenomenon for Shtetl girls in

those times. The younger, Fania, later became Professor in the Science

Academy of Moscow.

The Volozhyn Jews received in those times the Yiddish journal "der Moment".

Few of them read Russian newspapers. Moyshe Perelman was receiving the

Russian edited in Moscow, "Russkoye Slovo".

The Perelman's stone house was built in 19th century. Graph Tishkevitch built

it and gave it as a present to his friend, Reb Hayim der Volozhyner. Malka

Perelman inherited the house.  It was built in stone in a style similar to

the graph's Estate houses. In the lowest part on the Beys Medrash side were

apartments.  On the market side was a row of shops.  To reach them you had to

mount a few steps.

On top of a part of the apartments a second floor was built in which

Perelman's family lived. The apartment had departed a large balcony

overlooking the market, the only balcony in town.

Steps descended from the left side into half a cellar in which the wine shop

was located. On the shelves were arranged many bottles with a variety of

colored labels. The sales counter was positioned on the left hand side.  

Behind it in a chair usually sat the elder Perelman's daughter, Haya Dina.

Most of her time she was deeply engrossed in Russian literature.  While

reading she did not know what happened around her and it was possible to

remove all the bottles not interrupting Haya Dina's reading

Steps ran down from the shop to a second and then to a third deep underground

cellar. Here the life enjoying liquid was transferred from barrels to bottles.

Moyshe Perelman's additional occupation was his insurance agency. His hands

were full with work. The majority of the buildings in Volozhyn and the entire

region were wood constructions. Since wood is an excellent burning material,

fire destruction was common in the area. The big fires counted as major

dates. So you could hear people say that an event occurred "between the

second and the third Fire".

Ore Polak

Ore Polak was the shtetl truly rich-man. Medium height, well dressed, with a

classic belly, a golden chain, a French small beard and his hair divided in

the middle. It made Ore Polak look exactly as a rich-man should look. Every

one referred to him with respect and always was the first to greet him with a

"good day".

Widowed, he lived by himself in his big house on Vilna Street, opposite the

sazhelke. The house had many rooms and included a living room with pictures

on the walls and soft furniture.

We children were mostly interested in his fly and insects collection. They

were pierced and packed in glass boxes .The scientific and common name of

each one was marked beside the relevant box.

In his elder years Ore Polak married the shtetl delivery nurse. Her son, my

friend, took me often to the living room to show me the wonderful collection.

In Volozhyn one did not have to think of Rotshild when he thought about rich

people, he used simply to say "If I were Ore Polak..."  

Childhood and boyhood happy years

The young had their best time spending at Sabbath evening (Shabeyse-naht)

walks on Vilna Street.  The street was crowded. The strolls were far into the

fields. We had no movies, shows or concerts, but we were happy and joyful.

And we, heyder boys, sneaked in fruit orchards to taste the delicious apples,

pears and plums, fresh and direct from the tree.  

At the end of summer, when the sun was still warm, yet not too hot, it was

such a pleasure to wander in the distant fields. We would dig potatoes, bake

them on the spot by making bonfires and then we would return exhausted and

happy to our homes.

In later years when I would return home to spend my high school summer

vacation,  I used to walk to Kapustina at midnight, extract Michael Polak's

brother from bed, and together steal into the creamery to fry the Holland

cheese offal on butter. With paradise taste in mouth, returning home, the

first sun rays showed in the east.

We used to walk also to Kaldiki, a village inside the forest on the Bierosa

River.  We bathed in the deep water flowing between beautiful pine and poplar

trees, we walked through the forest to collect black and red wild berries. I

loved to spend a good time on the forest river shore with a book intoxicated

by Mendele Moher Sforim, Lev Tolstoy or Sholom Aleyhem stories.

We often walked late in the night to the Stolb - the town tower at the and of

Vilna street, on the forest way, with our sisters and particularly with their

comrades, when in our hearts aroused the first love feelings. It was young

boys dreams mixed with joy and happiness.

I remember with longing, regret and mourning my happy boyish years, my

birthplace town, my home and the life that was brutally and totally destroyed